Wind in the hair motoring is addictive. In the early ’60s you couldn’t cross the road for fear of being mown down by a roofless roadster, because every enthusiast worth his Solvol had an open sports car. From Midgets to Big Healeys to E-types, there was something for everybody. Then along came the Mini Cooper, and then US safety legislation and – final nail in the coffin – the Volkswagen Golf GTI, and the roadster was dead.

Good story, but it isn’t true. For a start, those open roadsters very often weren’t open at all. Many of those E-types were fixed-head coupes, lots of Healeys had works hardtops, and even though Lotus went to a lot of trouble to make the Elan available as an open car, you could still order it with a fixed roof if you wanted.
Nor did the sports car story stop when the Mini came along, or when the hot hatch appeared in the late 1970s. Though allegiances changed and other cars had their moments of glory, the sports car has enjoyed its revivals – and now, once again, true sports cars are the hottest things on four wheels. So to celebrate, we’ve gathered a group of classic sports cars demonstrating that variety of age, performance, layout, price and classic appeal.

From the 1960s, we have the ubiquitous MGB roadster and the sophisticated Elan, here in fixed-head coupé form. The targa-top Fiat X1/9 represents the 1970s, when the hot hatch was beginning to make its presence felt. From the 1980s we have the Toyota MR2 (another hard-top sports car) and the Mazda MX-5, the car that made roadsters cool again. Finally, the MGF of the 1990s represents a new era of coming classics. Good examples of the X1/9 and MR2 regularly change hands for less than £3000, while at the other end of the scale this particular Lotus was for sale at £8750 and roadster Elans fetch considerably more.

Those six cars give us some interests pairings and comparisons: the MGB, Lotus and Fiat are recognisably classics, while the Toyota, Mazda and MGF are still ‘emerging’ in most people’s eyes. We have three conventional front engine/rear drive cars and three mid-engined. The MGB and MGF are obviously linked; the MR2 was Toyota’s step beyond the X1/9; the Mazda was an Elan for the 1990s.

Each one has its own appeal, and its own strengths and weaknesses. Which would you choose?

MGB

If any classic car needs no introduction, then this is it. The MGB has been with us since 1962, a modern monocoque-shelled replacement for the MGA, and like all MG sports cars before it, the MGB proved itself in competition. There were creditable performances in three Le Mans races (in 1963, ’64 and ’65) and outright wins in the 1000-mile Guards Trophy and the 84-hour Marathon de la Route at the Nürburgring. On the road, the MGB’s combination of low price, convenience and fun made it the world’s favourite sports car.

Early cars had three-bearing engines but by the time ‘our’ MGB was built in 1969 the specification included a five-bearing crankshaft and all-synchro gearbox. TJN405H was one of the last MGBs built before the car received a Leyland ‘corporate’ makeover, with Rostyle wheels, Leyland badges and a dark grille. TJN retains the earlier bright grille and an interior that has a certain ‘1950s-ness’ about it, with lots of brightwork and a big plastic spring-spoke steering wheel.

The car was owned by MG enthusiast Eddie McGowan, who made the first ever solo drive from  London to Moscow and back in 1979/80 in this very car. Not content with that he went back with a group of other MG enthusiasts in 1987, only to have TJN run a big-end bearing on the way. In the end, the MG was towed to the border by the Russian police: Eddie and TJN travelled 1456 miles on the end of a seven-foot tow rope, a distance which put the pair of them in the Guinness Book of Records. Eddie died only a year or so later, and in his will he left TJN to the MG Owners Club, who have looked after it ever since.

The oldest car design here, TJN still puts forward a good case. It’s fun to drive, with a growly exhaust note and road manners which, while not Lotus-sharp, are safe and predictable. The ’B rolls more than you’d think, but it grips well enough on its narrow radials: uprated suspension would improve the roadholding, on smooth roads at least, but would spoil the MGB’s surprisingly effective ride/handling compromise. The ’B still cuts it as an everyday sports car, and it’s easy to see why, 40 years after its launch, it’s still so popular.

Lotus Elan

Colin Chapman’s first foray into road-car production was the glassfibre-monocoque Elite of 1958, but Chapman quickly realised that the Elite’s race-bred Coventry-Climax engine made it too expensive. The bodyshells were expensive, too, and time-consuming to build. What Chapman needed was a car that was easier and cheaper to make, and could be sold in higher volumes.

Original ideas centred around another glassfibre monocoque, this time with an the option of an open top (rather than theall the Elite’s had fixed roofs) and powered by the short-stroke, 997cc Ford Anglia engine. While work progressed on the bodyshell a mechanical prototype was built up with a simple Ron Hickman-designed, sheet-steel backbone chassis, forked at each end to contain the drivetrain and suspension. It proved to be such as good solution that it was retained for production.

Bigger versions of the pre-Crossflow Ford engine became available early in the 1960s and the first Elans used 1.5-litre units, though a 1.6-litre engine was quickly adopted. The bottom end was all Ford, but on top sat a new light-alloy cylinder head with twin overhead camshafts, designed by Autocar technical editor Harry Mundy. The result was 105bhp, enough to propel the Elan to 60mph from rest in well under 10 seconds – not much to write home about today, but rapid for 1962.

A variety of minor changes was made during the Elan’s first few years of production, resulting in the S3 models like this 1967 car. Compared to the others the Elan is tiny, but as long as you’re not too tall the cockpit proves comfortable, once you’re installed through a narrow door opening. But it’s a curate’s egg: the varnished wood dash looks good but some of the warning lights are unlabeled, and it’s all at odds with the garish yellow race harnesses fitted by a previous owner. The Colin Chapman signature steering wheel is the right size and looks great, but has a cheap vinyl rim. Fire up the twin-cam engine and it, too, blends good and bad. It makes all the right noises, dominated by the growl of the four Weber chokes just ahead of your toes, but this example didn’t quite have the razor-edge throttle response of the best ‘twinks’, perhaps because it had been standing for a while and needed more use.

Get the Elan out on the road and you can quickly see why it caused so much of a stir. The ride is good, the handling taut and responsive, and the Elan has plenty of straight-line urge to match that glorious twin-carb soundtrack. It was expensive – around £1500 in the mid-’60s, and that would have bought you a good secondhand E-type – but it was worth it.

Fiat Bertone X1/9

Originally badged as a Fiat, the X1/9 was invented by Bertone. In 1969 the famous Italian carrozzerie unveiled the Runabout show car, and the striking wedge-shaped style that resulted was developed into production form for the targa-roofed X1/9 in 1972. Early cars, rare now in the UK, were powered by the 1290c Fiat 128 engine, but from 1978 the X1/9 received the 1498cc engine used in the Ritmo/Strada, and a five-speed gearbox. Even then, there was only 85bhp to play with, and in the US emissions regs resulted in as little as 67bhp.

Bertone always built the bodyshells, and from 1983 they took over complete assembly as Fiat divested itself of some low-volume production burdens: Pininfarina took over the 124 Spider the same year. The X1/9 survived until 1988, when production ended with a ‘Gran Finale’ special edition. Simon Ghent’s car is one of Bertone’s VS models, with leather seats, electric windows and a two-tone paint finish.

After the Elan, the X1/9 feels short and wide, with plenty of elbow room in the cosy cabin and a needle nose disappearing out of the driver’s view at the front. The dash has a simple rectangular binnacle in front of you, the two main dials being partly hidden by the steering wheel rim. Then you fire it up – a typically Italian thrum emanates from the rear – and you notice that the speedometer and tachometer needles rotate in opposite directions, bringing the important sectors of both instruments into the centre where they can be easily seen.

On the move the X1/9 feels soft and supple, but still turns in eagerly and corners with little roll or fuss. Control inputs need to be meatier than with some of the other cars here, but sometimes that’s no bad thing – the unassisted brakes need a hefty shove, for example, but provide a stable pivot for fancy heel-and-toe footwork (unlike the MX-5 with its over-light brake pedal). As owner Simon says, the Fiat – sorry, Bertone – comes into its own on a twisty road: for fun at a bargain price, there can be little to touch it.

Toyota MR2

Japanese car makers were pretty unadventurous in the 1970s and early ’80s, and Toyota was probably the most conservative of the lot. Its cars were reliable, worthy, often well engineered. But a bit boring.

In the mid-’80s Toyota obviously decided to do something about its image, and a variety of impressive performance cars was the result. One of the first of them, and possibly the most impressive of all, was the mid-engined MR2.

It’s about the same length as the X1/9, but taller and wider – which, to my eyes at least, makes it a fraction less attractive than the Bertone design. The benefits are obvious inside though, where there’s more room, particularly for taller drivers, and the cabin feels no less snug as a result. Black plastic dominates. The instruments are buried deep in a binnacle, the sides of which bring controls for the lights and wipers close to the steering wheel rim, but not curiously not close enough to operate without removing a hand from the wheel.

On the move the MR2, like the X1/9, has a surprisingly supple ride. Turn-in is eager and grip levels high. You’d have to know the car well to explore its limits on a dry road, though I’m told it’s much less secure in the wet (also like the X1/9).

It’s impressive in a straight line, too, with that strong 1.6-litre twin-cam engine spinning smoothly even at the top end of the rev-range: the red line is at a heady 7600rpm. The gearchange is lightning quick, and the short gearing helps take advantage of the engine’s top-end bite which propels the MR2 swiftly towards the horizon.
The MR2 has a likable, eager character backed up by sound, sensible design. On the one hand it’s quick and rewarding to drive, on the other hand convenient to use, reliable and well-built. It’s hard to believe that, again like the X1/9, these cars rarely struggle beyond £3000.

Mazda MX-5

Mazda never made much of a secret of the fact that the MX-5 – or Miata, as it was known in some markets – was a modern interpretation of a Lotus Elan. Look at the two cars and you can see some similarities. There’s a line here, a proportion there, the shape of the air intake and the side profile of the nose. Under the bonnet, the twin-cam engine does a passable impression of the Lotus unit. Put the Mazda and Lotus side by side and they don’t look identical, but there’s definitely a relationship. It’s like meeting the son who has his father’s eyes.

During the life of the car – it was introduced in 1989 and replaced by a new MX-5 in 1998 – there were numerous special editions. Alan Ward’s car is a rare SE model, one of 200 with a special wood and leather interior and alloy wheels, built in 1992. It sports an appropriate registration plate – MXS165E looks like MX5 1.6 SE.

More than half a million of those original MX-5s were built and it wasn’t only the car’s throwback styling that made it popular. Mazda got the engineering right, too, with a punchy 1.6-litre twin cam engine and a responsive chassis. With familiarity the MX-5 can be steered neatly with the throttle as much as the steering wheel, particularly on a low-grip surface, and you can see why Alan regularly uses his car for club track days.

Driving the MX-5 is easy, with typically Japanese controls requiring only feather-light inputs. Mostly that’s similar to the Elan that inspired it, the difference being the engine. The Lotus twin-cam is torquey and punchy and gruff, the Mazda sewing-machine smooth with a seamless delivery. With that wieldy handling and a supple ride the Mazda makes a strong case for itself.

MGF

We end how we began, with an MG. The revival of MG sports cars began in 1992 with the introduction of the MGB-based RV8, for which classic car enthusiasts can take a lot of the credit.

British Motor Heritage had restarted making panels for the MGB and then, when it had located and refurbished all the tooling, started building complete MGB bodyshells. That led to the creation of a new version of the MGB, using Rover V8 power and with some major improvements under the skin.

The MGF was a more serious attempt to build a competitive, modern sports car. Rover started with the acclaimed K-series engine and Hydragas suspension of the Metro, mounting the engine amidships. Two versions were available, the standard 1.8-litre with 118bhp and a 143bhp unit with variable valve timing.

Climbing in to the MGF gives you mixed signals straight away. The interior is the usual modern confection of plastics, though it’s attractive enough. But as soon as you shut the door you know from the nasty tinny ‘clang’ that Longbridge just couldn’t match the build quality of Japan.

It starts instantly, as you’d expect from an engine with all the benefits of modern construction techniques and engine management, and idles quietly. On the move it’s all easy to use and the performance is brisk, high-geared steering and a well-controlled ride adding to the fun.

There’s a wooden feeling to the way it responds – perhaps a quirk of the gas-strut suspension – and the build quality is depressing. Somehow the other cars here manage to feel special in a way that the MGF can’t quite manage.

Conclusions

There are many differences between these sports cars, some glaring and some subtle. Which you’d choose depends very much on what you want.

The MGB is the oldest design, and feels it: if you want a sports car that ‘feels’ classic then this is the one. The Lotus, introduced around the same time, is a more advanced package and has a different kind of appeal. A later, quicker Elan with sharper throttle response would appeal even more.

The MX-5, an Elan for the ’90s, makes a strong case for itself with impeccable build, fine handling and decent straight-line performance. It’s an entertaining package – to me, a more effective one than the disappointingly flimsy and wooden MGF.

On the day the two cars that had the most appeal for me were the X1/9 and MR2. Both were fun to drive, wieldy, comfortable and quick. They’re also absurdly good value. If only the MR2 looked as great as the X1/9; if only the X1/9 had the dependability of the Toyota. If only…

Meet the Drivers

Meet the MGF Driver Duncan works in the MG Owners Club’s regalia department, especially busy in the run up to Christmas: with 50,000 MGOC members to satisfy, that’s not difficult to believe. The MGF is owned and run by the club to gain experience of the modern MGs.

Meet the MGB Driver Andrew Noakes was the founding Editor of CLASSICS, and still contributes regularly to the magazine. He currently drives a 1972 MG Midget every day, so this ’69 MGB borrowed from the MG Owners Club was familiar territory.

Meet the X1/9 Driver Simon Ghent has always liked X1/9s, and took the plunge two years ago with this 1983 car. Some body repairs were needed, but since then it’s done long trips with no dramas. “The one thing everyone has problems with is the electrics,” says Simon. “After all, it’s a 15 year old Italian car!”

Meet the Elan Driver Normally chained to his desk, CLASSICS’ Art Editor Pete Nightingale was released into the sunlight, blinking like a pit pony, to drive our borrowed Elan to the photo shoot. Pete’s Mini is being rebuilt, so for everyday transport he’s driving a Vauxhall Senator that’s bigger than his house.

Meet the MR2 Driver Michael Sheavills runs the North East region of the MR2 Mk1 Club. This MR2 belongs to partner Joanne Thom, and is one of five currently owned by the pair. “I felt bullied into buying it,” Joanne jokes. “He sold my car when I wasn’t there…”

Meet the MX-5 Driver Alan Ward’s MX-5 1.6SE is his everyday car, and spends the weekends doing club events and track days. Alan runs the MX-5 Owners Club’s Oxford area website, and some local events. “They’re a great bunch of people,” he says.

Sports Saloons: The Competition

Sports cars aren’t the only machines to appeal to enthusiasts, and since the 1950s there have been a series of credible rivals to the true out-and-out sports machine. Jaguar’s compact monocoque saloons, starting with the 2.4 in 1955 and reaching their peak with the 3.8 Mk2 of 1959 had performance and handling to worry all but the greatest of the sports cars, but with four seats plenty of space.

In the 1960s the John Cooper dropped a Formula Junior engine into a Mini to create the Mini Cooper, which gave enthusiastic drivers a cheeky alternative to a Spridget or Spitfire. The Mini’s roadholding was, in fact, good enough to worry more powerful machinery, as John Rhodes’ tyre-smoking performances in saloon car racing proved.
Another circuit racer was the Lotus-Cortina, using the Lotus twin-cam engine from the Elan: its three-wheeled cornering in the hands of Jim Clark and Sir John Whitmore, amongst others, is still famous today. Ford developed the idea into the Escort Twin Cam of 1968, then the RS range of Escorts that ran through the 1970s. And if all that wasn’t enough, there were the front-wheel drive challengers: first the Alfasud Ti, then the orginal ‘hot hatch’, the Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI.

But despite all these rivals the sports car carried on – and today it’s more popular than ever.

Thanks to The Vintage & Sports Car GarageVSCG near Maidstone in Kent (01622 859570), who kindly lent us the Lotus; Richard Monk, general manager at the MG Owners Club (01954 231125) who arranged for us to borrow both MGs; the Fiat X1/9 Owners Club (01286 872161), MX-5 Owners Club (01279 656914) and Toyota MR2 Mk1 Club (01582 454971).

Specifications

1969 MGB
Engine 1798cc in-line four
Power 95bhp @ 4500rpm
Torque 110lbft @ 3000rpm
Transmission 4-speed manual, rwd
Suspension Front: wishbones and coil springs
Rear: leaf-sprung live axle
Brakes Disc front, drum rear
Wheels Centre-lock wire
Tyres 165x14
Performance Top Speed: 105mph
0-60mph: 12sec

1967 Lotus Elan
Engine 1558cc in-line four
Power 105bhp
Torque 108lbft
Transmission n 4-speed manual, rwd
Suspension  Front: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Rear: Chapman strut, lower wishbones, coil springs
Brakes Discs all round
Wheels Centre-lock steel
Tyres 145x13
Performance Top Speed: 112mph
0-60mph: 9.0sec Top Speed: 

1983 Bertone X1/9 VS
Engine 1558cc in-line four
Power 85bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 87lbft @ 3200rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual, rwd
Suspension Front: MacPherson struts
Rear: MacPherson struts
Brakes Discs all round
Wheels 5.5x13in alloy
Tyres 185/60x13
Performance Top Speed: 108mph
0-60mph: 10.0sec

1989 Toyota MR2 Mk1
Engine 1558cc in-line four
Power 122bhp @ 6600rpm
Torque 105lbft @ 5000rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual, rwd
Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar
Rear: MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar
Brakes Discs all round
Wheels 5.5x14in alloy
Tyres 185/60HR14
Performance Top Speed: 122mph
0-60mph: 8.0sec

1992 Mazda MX-5 SE
Engine 1597cc in-line four
Power 115bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque 100lbft @ 5500rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual, rwd
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Rear: Chapman strut, lower wishbones, coil springs
Brakes Discs all round
Wheels 7x15in alloy
Tyres 215/45ZR15
Performance Top Speed: 121mph
0-60mph: 8.8sec

1997 MGF
Engine 1796cc in-line four
Power 120bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 122lbft @ 3000rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual, rwd
Suspension Front: Wishbones, Hydragas springs, anti-roll bar
Rear: Wishbones, Hydragas springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes Discs all round
Wheels 15in alloy
Tyres 185/55R15
Performance Top Speed: 120mph
0-60mph: 8.5sec

Published by Classics Magazine 2003